January is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month, which gives us an opportunity to learn about the virus that causes most cancers of the cervix (as well as other cancers). More than six million Americans are infected with human papillomavirus (HPV) every year, making it one of the most common sexually transmitted infections. There are more than 100 different strains of the virus, some of which can cause genital warts and others of which can lead to cancer. In most cases, an HPV infection will clear up within eight to 13 months, but it can lurk undetected for years, which makes cancer screening very important for anyone who has been sexually active.
Most sexual activities – especially those involving genital-to-genital contact, i.e., vaginal and anal intercourse or simply rubbing genitals together, but also those involving oral and manual contact – can transmit HPV. Although HPV is best known for its connection to cervical cancer in women, it can affect either sex and cause cancers of the vulva, vagina, cervix, penis, anus, oral cavity, or pharynx.
Together, HPV-16 and HPV-18 cause about 70 percent of cervical cancers. Fifty percent of U.S. women who die of cervical cancer have never had a Pap smear; in countries without widespread access to Pap smears, cervical cancer remains a major cause of death. Continue reading